Among all the obstacles that stand in the way of a 2020 college football season, there is a roadblock that has been for the most part overshadowed, buried under the other bigger obstacles, such as tests, travel, a bubble-free college campus and the quarantine requirements. This obstacle? The heart.
“That’s what was the last straw,” says a team doctor for a major college football program. “The commissioners have finally understood everything. The commissioners say: “Oh my God! “And the doctors are like, ‘Yeah …'”
University and conference leaders grapple with new information from the medical community about the virus’s effects on its victims, exacerbating an already difficult conundrum: risk and play a fall season, or sit and watch a industry potentially collapsing? The revelations of doctors like Martinez deepened the debate.
In fact, the issue of the brewing heart was the subject of a recent appeal among the commissioners of the Power 5 conference. The fear of myocarditis has reached the top of the sport, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and the Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren both having privately voiced serious concerns about the disease. A doctor from the Power 5 team, who is aware of conference commissioner calls, says heart disease is a main topic in discussions. “We discuss it with every call,” the doctor said on condition of anonymity.
The issue surfaced on Saturday in what was, at this point, the most important college football news of the shutdown: The Mid-American Conference became the first FBS league to cancel its fall season. The MAC’s medical advisory board has unanimously advised conference leaders to suspend the season. And while financial implications have also been a factor (MAC schools, a normal year, lose money on football), the long-term and somewhat unknown impacts on the health of COVID-19 victims – y including myocarditis – were a key point of discussion.
“This is what people don’t get,” said a senior MAC administrator familiar with the Presidents’ call on Saturday. “These are lung and heart problems.”
Doctors themselves are still learning more about a new virus and its post-healing effects on the human body. Myocarditis is one of many side effects, but for athletes it is the most serious, says Martinez, medical director of sports cardiology at Atlantic Health System in New Jersey. Martinez knows a thing or two about the hearts of athletes. He is the league cardiologist for Major League Soccer, is the cardiology consultant for the NBA and on the NFL medical committee.
He acknowledges that the cases in athletes with heart impacts linked to COVID are very small. Among professional, college and youth league athletes, he hasn’t seen more than a dozen in the United States. However, there are probably many more. Some are not detected or have not been brought to his attention. Doctors are not sure how common the disease is. Some have publicly stated that recovered COVID-19 patients have shown up to 50% impact on their hearts, but with striking degrees of severity.
A recent German study published in July found heart inflammation in 60 of 100 patients with the virus recovered. This number included asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic patients.
A doctor from the university team said Illustrated sports Saturday that he is aware of about 10 COVID-related heart impacts across college football, many or all of which are from mildly symptomatic players. Although this number represents only a fraction of the total population, the potential consequences of heart damage are serious. Symptoms of myocarditis include chest pain, abnormal heartbeat, shortness of breath and, in the most severe case, sudden death. Already, myocarditis accounts for about 2-5% of all sudden death cases in American sports.
While many cases of COVID-related myocarditis in athletes remain private, some have come to the fore. Left-handed pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, screened as the Red Sox’s No.1 pitcher this year, developed myocarditis after contracting COVID-19. He will miss the 2020 season. The mother of an offensive lineman from Indiana suggested in a Facebook post earlier this week that her son may have heart complications as a result of the virus.
At least one college football player has developed an enlarged heart after contracting COVID-19, a team coach told SI on condition of anonymity. The recovery time for such heart damage is at least three months without activity, Martinez says.
Martinez says he’s heard virtually every major college football conference this summer regarding the issue of the heart. Some of them are moving forward, he says, with a plan to “pivot” if things go wrong. “Others said, ‘I think we have to stop,’ Martinez says. “The MAC did this today.”
His advice to conference officials was to make heart tests mandatory for those who have contracted the virus. That’s why the most recent conference medical plans include heart screenings as part of the return-to-play protocol.
Martinez recommends screening at three levels so that all COVID-19 positives come back to activity: an EKG, an echocardiogram, and a troponin blood test, which measures the level of specific cardiac troponin in the blood to help detect heart damage. Each blood test and EKG can cost around $ 50, says Martinez. The most intrusive echocardiogram can be as high as $ 500 per test. “It can be done. You can play football, ”he says,“ but the resources have to be used. ”
The disparity in varsity athletics is great. In FBS alone, there is a significant monetary gap between Power 5 conference programs and Group 5 teams. The gap is widening from Group 5 to FCS and from Division II to Division III. Few of the FCS, D2 and D3 programs are expected to play football this fall. Many of them don’t have the funds to meet NCAA requirements for in-season testing, quarantine, and contact tracing.
Saturday was also a dark day for the NCAA Premier Division. After the MAC canceled their season, the Big Ten suspended their preseason training. And on Friday, there was this from NCAA chief medical expert Brian Hainline: “Almost everything would have to be perfectly aligned to keep moving forward.
Add another obstacle to the list: the heart.